Gay Black Church: An Interview with Bishop Yvette Flunder

It’s Sunday afternoon in the sanctuary of City of Refuge, a linoleum-floored auditorium with folding chairs, at a particularly sketchy downtown San Francisco intersection. Yvette Flunder, founding pastor, is preaching at the podium, a fine wooden pedestal that gives the altar a hint of traditional “church.” It was her grandfather’s pulpit, and now she’s raising the roof amidst shouts from the congregation: Say it, Bishop! Tell it!

Possessing a world-class gospel voice she punctuates her preaching with spontaneous singing as she preaches about what it means to be a “radically inclusive” congregation—to be a church for everyone. It’s the kind of thing you might not notice right away. Just another black church in a down-and-out urban neighborhood. But then you look to your left, at the gangly transgender woman with tattoos; or at the band, up by the stage, with a drummer who looks like singer Nona Hendryx; or at the choir director, in shiny satin, and it begins to dawn on you: radically inclusive. Not just words.

I met with Yvette Flunder in her office at City of Refuge, where we talked about her background as a preacher, as the daughter of preachers, what it means to be bicultural—gay and church—and about how to reach more people with the message of inclusion. 

RD: I heard you speak earlier this year, in response to a question that was posed to you about homophobia in the black church, and how civil rights language “doesn’t work” in doing outreach to black churches; that the fight for gay marriage doesn’t compare.

Well I think that the reason there is a struggle for the ownership of the terminology of civil rights is that this generation in particular of African Americans think of it as relating only to the Civil Rights Movement. They think of marching up and down the street, and Dr. Martin Luther King—they think Selma, Alabama, and Birmingham and “we shall overcome.”

But if we’re going to really have a conversation about civil rights, and marriage rights, and equal rights for same-gender loving and transgender people, we have to go back further in history and make the comparison to what happened during chattel slavery and at the close of chattel slavery.

During chattel slavery, the people who were trying very hard to catechize African people into Christianity had a great dilemma because though they wanted to encourage them to all be Christians, it had to be Christians with a caveat.

These Christians came here to Plymouth Rock with the idea of being liberated from religious oppression—so their brand of Christianity was about freedom.

Now how do you give that brand of Christianity to people that you’re holding in chattel slavery? How do you do that?

It was a great huge drama—how do we come up with a brand of Christianity to give the slaves that will make them know that they are Christians? Something to make sure they won’t any more lean toward their indigenous faith: to make them come out of the religion they brought from Africa, and demonize and vilify that; to see it as heathen. So how do we get them to make that move, but make them know that they’re not completely free?

So they came up with a brand of Christianity that—and it’s a whole catechism, with documents before and after it—that let people know that they could be Christians, but Christians with conditions. Conditional rights, versus equal rights. And conditional freedoms versus equal freedoms.

And that’s where, to me, there’s a greater example of the kind of things that same-gender loving people are going through now. Alright? The Civil Rights Movement was a fight for equality for black people and the right to vote. The suffrage movement was a right for equality and the right to vote. But this whole thing that happened during chattel slavery was a right to personhood. And it’s deeper—it’s deeper. It speaks to whether or not people, even in the sight of God, could ever be equal. Because the idea goes all the way into eternal life.

The way they taught it to the slaves was that baptism frees, say, a white woman from any vestiges of being outside of the ark of safety. She can be fully baptized into the church, but I can’t be fully baptized—not into the same status. And that is because there is something intrinsically subservient, or substandard about me.

What were the particulars of that? What was the language?

Well, the principal thing about the catechism was: if an African was going to be included in the church, they had to first take a vow that if they saw any of their sister or brother Africans disobedient to their masters, or seeking to run away, that they would disclose that information to people in authority—and if they didn’t, that would constitute a reason to put them out. That’s one thing.

Secondly, that they would understand that their role in God’s will, essentially, was to be subservient to white people. It was God’s will that they were under a curse. And that curse said that no matter what they did, no matter how educated they were, no matter what, they would always be subservient. You just had to deal with this.

And whose idea was this? Where did this come from?

It was a group of clergy. We may never know who they all were, but it repeated itself over and over again. And then the other thing that I think was extremely important on this list is that black people were to know that this was not just for this life but when we got to heaven. There would really be two distinct sections of heaven.

Seriously?

Yes, and all throughout eternity, that’s what African people would do, because they’re cursed. We still wouldn’t get free. There’s no freedom anywhere. And that it was God’s idea—it was not white people’s ide  it was God’s idea that we be in that place.

And there was a church in Welshneck, South Carolina that, when the Emancipation proclamation came and African people were freed, a group of them went to this church and wanted to become members of the church. Now of course they couldn’t sit in the same section as the white people, but there were African people who were members of churches. They had to sit usually in the balcony and the white people came in and sat on the ground floor, and once they were all seated they would let the African people come in.

But this particular church withheld membership to people who had more than one wife or husband. Some people, fundamentalists, still teach that if you have a living wife or husband you can’t marry again, because divorce is a sin. You can remain single and be a member but the former person has to die before you can marry again.

So what the dilemma was was that slaves didn’t have any control over who their life partners or mates would be. A slave woman could easily be sold away from her man, or her children and man could be sold away from her, and she could be given to another man and required to be sexual with him and to make babies with him just like they would send out breed stock for cows and horses.

So when you come to the church, now you’re with a man, say, and you have a couple of his kids but, six plantations down, you have another man and your children are down there and under the ownership of somebody else, and maybe before him there was another man and you have some more children. And each of these men have other children. So when you get to the church, who are you married to?

So the dilemma was, how can we make them members when their situation was the definition for adultery and fornication—because they were not free to make these decisions on their own.

And this church just decided that whatever marriage they had when they got to the church that’s the marriage they would acknowledge, and any marriage that preceded that would be as though it didn’t exist.

And the thing that is so powerful for me in this is that here was a group of people that found a way to solemnize the marriages of people who didn’t fit comfortably in the status quo. And I think it’s a great challenge to religion now as it relates to the realities of same-gender loving and transgender people: How do you solemnize, respect, and appreciate the marriages of people who don’t fit snugly into the status quo? You have to supersede your law, because your law is designed for people who have the privilege and the ability to keep it.

Yes, I’ve heard you say that being able to be heard is actually a question of privilege.

Exactly, and I have this real ongoing struggle trying to explain this. In certain situations, in groups of funders and activists, I’m always trying not to say what I really want to say. I don’t want to seem to be just another angry black lesbian—that’s not what I want. I want to be able to cross the aisle for real and have real conversations; but sometimes I think to myself: how hard would it have been to push the envelope a little bit, see if we could aggressively seek to work with organizations run by people of color?

You mean, people on the ground, working with black churches from within?

You see, we get studied. We’re in all of the research, especially the research about how unreachable we are.

Those of us who have to do it, who are bicultural enough to speak the language of the church, and the language of the funder, or the academy. We’re not the ones who are funded to do it. You’d be amazed at the hoops I’ve jumped through to get funding.

Is that because there’s a blanket assumption that the African-American church is not friendly to LGBT issues?

Well the best way to say it to you is first of all, well, who am I? I’m an African-American person of faith. And same-gender loving. And I’m not really unique.

It’s just that folks are not talking to folks like me. I have to make my way to folks to get them to hear.

And the other thing I can say to you—take someone like my mother, who passed in 2007. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Pentecostal fundamentalist. All my life. She was serious about God, serious about the Bible, serious about how if you don’t do what the Bible says you’re going to hell. Plain and simple.

And I remember one day having a sort of epiphany about my mother. And I said, you know, How do I reach my mother? Shirley and I had been together several years by that time and my relationship with my momma was kind of troubled. Cause she was okay with just about anything, but not that gay stuff. Me being a woman preacher and a budding theologian, all of that was cool. But the gay stuff? I remember thinking one day: what am I going to be able to do to get to my mother, ’cause we won’t be together forever—one of us is gonna get out of here.

And I got to thinking. My mother likes to shop. So I started calling my mother on Monday mornings and let her tell me everything that happened at her church on Sunday—which of course was always the greatest movement of the Spirit that happened in creation. Every so often I’d try to get a word in about City of Refuge. But it was hard work; she had so much to tell me about her church.

So I’d say, What are you doing?

Oh, not much, it’s Monday.

And I’d say: Let’s go downtown.

You coming to get me?

And I’d say, Yeah, I’ll come get you.

And I would go and get my mother, and we’d go down to Nordstrom’s. She loved Nordstrom’s, and DSW.

So I’d carry her packages. And while we were out there shopping we would talk. And we would talk and we would talk. And we would start talking theological things. And she would tell me what she believed. And I would let her tell me. and I’d say: Let’s humanize it for a minute. I’m your daughter. And I’m a same-gender loving person. Do you really believe that I’m out of relationship and fellowship with God? Do you really believe that?

And she would say, No, I don’t believe you’re out of relationship with God.

And I said, So how do you explain me? Because you know me, so you would know if I was somehow completely off-target. How do you explain me? And my mom would say: Well, I really don’t know.

But thats a big thing, that she said she didn’t know.

Yes, she’d say: I just don’t know. Because perhaps, maybe, there are not absolutes like that. So let’s keep talking.

So we would eat, and shop some more and finally my mother started studying on her own and asking me questions and we started discussing scripture and religious thought. And before I knew it we were having really long talks, and my mother started coming to our conference, our Fellowship conference.

What’s that?

The Fellowship has two conferences a year. The Fellowship is about 110 clergy, 75 churches. throughout the U.S., mostly inner-city. Most are pastored by same-gender loving people, or people who are affirming of SGLP. Predominantly African American, emerging from Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal backgrounds.

In your book [Where the Edge Gathers] you use a hybrid word to describe that tradition. What was it again?

Methabaptacostal.

And that’s really true, our worship style is informed by that background. So my mother started coming to our meetings. I’d take her with me. My mother started doing our prayer in the morning. She’d bring us all together and she’d teach us about prayer and she’d pray with us, all the leaders, and then all the lay people at the summer meeting.

And she became sort of our prayer leader for the Fellowship. And then further down the line she decided she was going to leave her denomination, and that we would be her community, her spiritual community. How awesome is that?

Very.

And she started telling people: I still don’t understand altogether all these different things, this transgender thing. But, she said, the one thing I do know, that these are people who love God with all their heart. And secondly she said: I know when the Spirit of God is moving in a group of people—and the spirit of God is moving in this group of people.

And that was the disclaimer. Folks said: Why are you over there with them? What is wrong with you? And that would be my mother’s response. And it was so powerful.

And before my mother passed we became so close; I am so glad that I don’t have that to regret.

What I want to say to people is: this is not science—this is relational. What we’ve got to do is to help people who are like me help people to understand the importance of self-love that doesn’t make you compromise and lie about who you are. ’Cause our people are reachable, that’s not the problem.

African-American people, as I said to you earlier, were taught Christianity primarily in the context of oppression, second-class Christianity. And we have a great propensity to need to have a second-class among us. When people are disempowered, they are often empowered at someone else’s expense. Whether it’s women or children or gay people. It’s always the same thing, the same thing played out with different people. And how do we break that? How do we get through that?

What has to happen is that people who are the object of the disdain have to love the hell out of the others. [laughs]

And we reach back and we don’t sit off somewhere and be so smart and so brilliant and so academic that we can’t connect.

When I last saw you there was discussion about LGBT folk still having shame, about not feeling like we can stand up and be part of religion.

That’s right. You look around at any gathering of LGBT activists and you understand why there are so few people of color. Because there are a great many European-American gay and professional folk that still have some guilt issues about what happened to black people in this country. And don’t feel qualified or close enough to have these hard conversations without having a lot of those things come up, come to the surface.

So what happens in San Francisco, you know, is that black gay people stay in the neighborhood, keep going to black churches, just do it on the down-low. But white gay people ghettoize. They leave, and then go to the neighborhoods that are gay. And they buy gay businesses and they have gay clubs and they have gay theaters and gay paraphernalia. Because they leave. They have the privilege, first of all, to do that. But also because they have the ability to culturally separate, because wherever they go, there they are.

When we leave our neighborhoods and our churches, what is there to catch us if we don’t assimilate? And not all of us are willing to assimilate. We do love and appreciate the culture of African people in this country, Latino people… who still hold on to culture that makes them feel comfortable. It’s cornbread and a warm kitchen and a table at your momma’s house. That’s the feeling that you get. And when you don’t have that in a neighborhood, the assimilation is tough.

So it’s as though the movement, the fight for gay rights, requires that you abandon your religion?

Absolutely. Yes. And trash it! You abandon it and trash it. It’s hopeless.

I am one of the religious leaders in this country who has one of the largest numbers of black gay churches in the U.S. gathered together. I don’t know anybody that has a larger number of black gay churches meeting together. Not gay churches—the MCC definitely has the corner on that.

Do you work together?

Very closely. In fact I have an MCC credential, an ordination. 

Were there times in your life when you did question your ability to stay in the church?

I’ve had some dark, dark days. I don’t deny that at all. I have no reason to, because I think that those days are the days that are the making of us.

But the truth is that I owe a lot to my spiritual formation experiences in Pentecostal church. Because Pentecostal Church—and it doesn’t know it—is one of the purest expressions of African spirituality that exists in this country. We just don’t know it. If you were to see a Voudou ceremony and just turn the volume down. And then see a real Pentecostal church, especially in the South, and watch them both, you’d declare that they were the same people doing the same thing.

Because the spontaneity of the Spirit in allowing the Spirit to move freely, and in and through your body, in and through your mind, with songs. The free-style worship, the celebration, the movement away from the bulletin, the program.

You have a gospel background. It was right after I met you that I was reading Kalefa Sanneh’s New Yorker article in which you talked about how church choirs have always been the province of LGBT parishioners.

They always have been. In our indigenous expression that wasn’t a problem. It was Christianity that demonized gay people.

When I think about my Pentecostal experience, I think about prayer. And meditation. And inner life. And seeking to know God deeply internally. And what that really meant for me, and for us.

When I got into my real struggles, where people basically said to me that I did not have a relationship with God, that I could not have a relationship with God because I’m gay. My inner life said, well, bless your little heart. There’s no way in the world you can make me believe that. Not now.

My grandmother used to say: “You can’t make me doubt Him. I know too much about Him.” And the truth is, that’s the way I feel. And it would have been very easy, because some of these people are very academic, you know, have… a great command of the English language, and Greek and Hebrew too… I love to tell these people that I’ve been to school too. And it’s disconcerting to them. And not because I know what I know, but because I really believe it, with all my heart.

You’re not just talking.

Right. It’s my life. I always believe that we are much more passionate about what we believe than we are about trying to destroy someone else’s belief. I’m speaking out of what I do know, what I have lived.

My grandfather told me a story once. He said when you have a dollar in your pocket, he says, it’s good sometimes to keep it in your pocket. Keep your hand on your dollar. The temptatation is to show it, and there’s always people who will say: Well that’s not real money. And you get so frustrated. So just keep it until it’s spending time. Then just throw it on the counter and get your dollar’s worth of penny candy. And offer them some, cause they didn’t think it was possible. And I have lived that. It’s been a creed for me, almost all of my adult life—so I don’t get into these ridiculous debates.

Sometimes I’ve been asked to be on a panel, or something like that, and for what? I am the proof. And this is the proof. This is real. This is a real table. We’re sitting in a real place. This is a real center. And we built it. Gay people built this.

Tell me more about how that came about.

All of this?

Yeah.

Well, as I said, I was raised in the Pentecostal church, and left the church for a period of time in conflict. Both because I knew I was a woman called to minister and ministry was not available.

Was this before COJIC?

And because I knew I was a same-gender loving person, and there was no room for me in either of those iterations of myself, either myself as gay or myself as a woman clergy. So I got involved in social work, particularly aid to the elderly. Which is still a very deep love for me. Everything from meals to legal aid to elder transport. And truthfully I was doing just fine, happy as a clam, doing that work. It was kind of like my faith in action.

But then I was driving along the freeway one day and I had one of those epiphanies, life-changing moments. And it was as though the spirit of God was speaking to me directly and I was so overcome by the strength or the impact that I pulled my car over on the shoulder. I was on 80 and I pulled over right around Berkeley, on the side, and just wept and cried like a baby. And I said to God in that moment: These people don’t want me. The church doesn’t want me. They don’t have a place for me. And I’ll just keep doing this good work, taking care of people. That’s got to mean something. And I love it. I enjoy it.

And it was at that point that it became clear to me that I was being called to pull those things together: social ministry and a faith-based organization together at one time. And I said, Well how am I going to do that? Where am I gonna go?

And I got home and opened up a bottle of wine. And I was carrying it around the house, drinking out of the bottle. I was totally discombobulated. And then I got a phone call from the folks at Love Center Church in Oakland, Walter Hawkins, and he was going to be out of town and wanted to know if I would come and minister and preach for them. I hadn’t preached in five years. I didn’t know where my Bible was. How about that? And of course everything in me wanted to say no but my mouth said yes.

Did you know them?

Yes, but I wasn’t on the circuit. It had been years. And I was shocked, but I went over there and I preached for them. I had a great time in the worship and I joined that church that day. And I stayed with him almost ten years.

One year after I got there I was already Associate Pastor. I had the experience. I was a church kid, and I come from church planters, and I understand church work. I was content to stay there. Happy as a clam to be accepted as a woman, and quasi accepted as a same gender loving woman.

There were a lot of gay people in the church. And they knew about me. You just couldn’t talk about it. Couldn’t get in the pulpit and say anything. But the people who were gay they’d come to me and talk to me and I’d counsel them. I was sort of like the unofficial counselor to the gay people.

Then I had this other epiphany. I was at home. Shirley and I were together already, because we’ve been together for many, many years now. And she’s Walter’s first cousin. She’s the voice on “Oh Happy Day”—great gospel singer. So there we were, and we were in bed, and in the middle of the night, around 3 o’clock in the morning, I woke up and I told her, I said: I feel that I’m being called to pastor a church. And she said, Well, you are pastoring a church. And I said, No, another church, away from here. And I cried again.

Because I didn’t want to go. I was doing fine. I intended to be an old lady wheeled down the aisle of that church. About a year after that, in 1991, we started City of Refuge. We were about fifteen people when we started, being intentional about being fully and radically inclusive from the first day. Gay, transgender people, people in recovery from drugs, people coming from being incarcerated. We were very serious about it and talked about it a lot. There was no down-low at all. Shirley and my relationship, we talked about it from the very beginning.

And the church has grown exponentially. And we’ve planted several Cities of Refuge, where our own local pastors have gone: in Tijuana, in DC, and one in Johannesburg, South Africa. And then we have churches that started coming to us and wanting to be a part of us, and we didn’t have a mechanism. So we became UCC after about 6 years. And that’s when we started the Fellowship, which happened in 1999.

It’s gone fast.

Yes, all of a sudden we had 15, and then 20 and then 30. Like I said, we’re not unique. We’re just the place that left the light on for everybody else. The truth is we just needed to gather them. Because the same spirit of God that moved us to do this is the same spirit of God that has moved people to this all over this country and world.

New theologies are born at a flash point where a group of people refuse to believe that God does not want them or love them. They just refuse to believe it. And they start paying the price for that. Which in many cases means they have to pull out from some existing denomination or faith group, right? And start something else. What I call ministry on the margins.

Where the temptation is to try to be accepted by the center you know that you’re prophetic when you’re on the margin and you stop trying to pull the center. You create something new and fresh. It’s sort of like the definition of reformation. Something new and fresh on the margins. And that’s what most of these churches did, but it’s lonely work. Because there’s nobody like you, you think. But then you leave the light on, people started coming in [your] direction, saying, is there really an organization like that?

For us Pentecostal types, Baptist and Methodist types who didn’t fit snugly in MCC or UCC or other places, there was a welcome. But the culture was different, so it didn’t have the same level of comfort around those things. And it grew and grew. And now we’re discerning, what in the world are we gonna become?

Amazing to be in this building and feel that as far as you’ve come it’s still a beginning.

That’s really true. We have a lot more to come. And a lot more opportunities for growth and expansion, and I’m very very conscious of what is coming next in terms of growing out of this economic repression.

Interesting phrase!

And people having so much fear about how they will make it from one thing to the next, only faith pulling them out. It is a repression. I call it that because so much of it was orchestrated by people who used poor people, particularly in the housing industry, and poor people’s need to succeed…

With the church’s complicity in some cases, as in prosperity preaching…

Yes. And the prosperity preaching was utilized by people who said… you can get a house, nothing down, reverse mortgage. You can get a house with negative equity and it’s actually worth $200K but we’ll get it appraised at 300 so you can get the loan and we won’t tell you about the adjustment so 5 years later it’s gonna go from no percent to 7.5. But let’s just get you in so we can make our money.

And the people who did that knew that there was an end. It’s a pyramid scheme. You know that at some point the people at the bottom of the pyramid are gonna be broke but you try to get yours and get out as quickly as you can before that reality happens. I’ve seen people severely hurt. and all the trickle down that comes from that. But [I] also see their faith bringing them up out of that, watching folks getting their footing again, getting their courage.

We recently had a healing service here, and it was so powerful. When you hug someone, have them in your arms and just feel their heart beating, one-on-one. So powerful.

lisa@religiondispatches.org'

Lisa Webster is co-editor of Religion Dispatches. See her full bio here.